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Council rethinking abandoned-infant plan

Wednesday, October 27, 1999

By Timothy McNulty, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

A plan to put baskets for abandoned infants in the city's 35 fire stations this winter was watered down by Pittsburgh City Council yesterday. Instead of forcing the city to place the baskets in the stations, council members agreed to ask the Murphy administration to look at the plan further and then get back to them.

The amended bill was passed 7-2, with Dan Cohen and Jim Ferlo voting no. Both men said the baskets would leave the impression the city condoned infant abandonment, and the bill was a bad idea in any form.

In conjunction with the city firefighters union, a local group called "Baskets for Babies" had asked council to place the baskets inside the fire stations. The group already has about 600 volunteers who place the baskets outside their homes, but with cold weather coming they wanted to find spots indoors, and decided fire houses -- which are spread citywide and often have people working in them -- would be perfect sites.

The group's mission is to save infants abandoned by their parents from dying of exposure. Signs arranged with the baskets say babies will be cared for if abandoned, with no questions asked. Since the program was started in April -- just after two babies were abandoned and died in the city -- none of the baskets has been used.

Public Safety officials and members of council have said they empathized with the idea, but said the baskets could endanger infants rather than save them. Fire stations are not always occupied, they noted, and an infant could be left unnoticed for hours. It would be safer, they said, to put the infant in a safe place, call 911, and have paramedics pick up the baby within minutes.

Critics said infants and their parents would be served better by education, prenatal care and health services than the baskets.

Supporters from Baskets for Babies, the firefighters union and council repeatedly said the program was a last resort that wouldn't cost much money -- the women's auxiliary of the union has already purchased the baskets -- and was meant to add an extra layer to health services, not replace them.

"If it just works once it saves a baby," said Councilman Gene Ricciardi, a sponsor of the bill. "There's no proper way to abandon a baby, no proper way, but maybe there's a safe way."

It appeared the bill would only get five votes from the nine-member body -- Valerie A. McDonald and Sala Udin were also leaning against the measure -- and not withstand a Murphy veto, so supporters agreed to send the bill to Murphy for comments and craft a plan with wider support.

Baskets for Babies founder Gigi Kelly was disappointed in the change and hoped the administration comes back with a new plan soon.

"Unfortunately, the bureaucracy we're tangled up in prevents us from getting baskets inside right now, while the weather's getting bad," she said.

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